Len Goodman is waltzing off into the Strictly Come Dancing sunset after this Saturday’s grand final, no doubt with a perfectly executed heel lead. At the age of 72 and following 14 seasons as Strictly’s head judge, Len has decided it’s time to lay down his scoring paddle and rest his dancing feet.
Even though Goodman and his fellow male judges Bruno Tonioli and Craig Revel-Horwood have been part of the panel since Strictly’s launch in 2004, it’s head judge Len who has secured his place in the nation’s hearts as the cheeky, twinkly-eyed uncle of the show, keeping the mood light with his pickle-me-walnuts charm and joyful scattering of metaphors. Who can forget: “You flew across the floor like a rampant crab” in response to Anita Rani and Gleb Savchenko’s 2015 American smooth?
Goodman took up ballroom dancing aged 19, after a short career as a welder, then turned professional in his 20s and went on to win the British Exhibition Championships four times with his partner and first wife, Cherry. He’s a stickler for proper ballroom and Latin techniques, with limited patience for a disco salsa or a hip-hop samba. If one of the Strictly professional dancers sneaked an illegal lift into their routine, there was a good chance Len would call them out on it; a reminder that competitive ballroom dancing has rules, and the choreographers ignore them at their peril.
For me, a score of “SEVERRRRN” should always be bellowed in an exaggerated fashion; it doesn’t feel right any other way. The show is better for Len’s 50 years of dance experience and kindly encouragement of beginners, not to mention his gritted-teeth recoiling from Bruno’s deranged arm-waving. It might be part panto, but there’s also an element of genuine exasperation at having his personal space invaded every few minutes, and it’s as much part of the Strictly furniture as a “Ten from Len”.
But that’s not to say there haven’t been a few sticky turns in Len’s judging routine; in recent years he has become increasingly cantankerous, perhaps due to the punishing schedule of weekly flights to LA to judge the US Strictly spin-off, Dancing with the Stars, and the pressure of maintaining his avuncular persona after 14 years in the ever-brightening Strictly spotlight.
The delivery of his preprepared comments has become more laboured, and the spats with fellow judges, pro dancers and even the celebrity contestants more frequent; this year’s headline-grabber was Len suggesting singer Will Young “turn up, keep up and shut up” after Young pushed back on Len’s critique of his Bollywood salsa – a reminder that Len still has all his own teeth, and isn’t afraid to use them.
But while the time may be right for Goodman to swap his Cuban heels for fireside slippers, there’s no doubt he is going to be a tough act to follow. Marianka Swain, arts journalist and Dancing Times’ Strictly blogger, agrees: “Strictly’s biggest triumph – and continuing challenge – is balancing ballroom and entertainment, making a show with dance integrity that’s also accessible to millions of Saturday night TV viewers. Len Goodman was a key part of that success, and the BBC will need to cast his successor with enormous care”.
The BBC are staying quiet on Len’s replacement for now, presumably to let him have his final moments in the Strictly spotlight before a new judge makes a big entrance. Bring a hanky for Saturday night’s Grand Final… it’s going to be emotional.
Len’s best Strictly one-liners
“You floated across that floor like butter on a crumpet.”
On Frankie Bridge and Kevin Clifton’s foxtrot, 2014.
“More rise and fall than an auctioneer’s gavel.”
On Tim Wonnacott and Natalie Lowe’s waltz, 2014.
“There are two things I don’t like in this world – babies crying and hip-hop.”
On Kellie Bright and Kevin Clifton’s samba, 2015.
“That was a mango of a tango – delicious.”
On Jay McGuinness and Aliona Vilani’s tango, 2015.
“It was a bit like my breakfast porridge – tasty, satisfying, with a bit of Oti flavour.”
On Danny Mac and Oti Mabuse’s salsa, 2016.